You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 29: Can US Policing Be Redeemed?

Can US Policing Be Redeemed?

Breonna Taylor. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. George Floyd. The list of names goes on and on and on. They are US citizens killed by the police. They are all Black. And those two facts are inextricably linked. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Cathy Schneider joins us to discuss racial profiling and police violence.

Professor Schneider explains how ethnic, racial, and religious minorities are policed differently than other groups in the US (1:28) and why Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people are more likely to be victims of police violence (5:59). She also discusses whether other countries have grappled with the degree of police violence seen in the US (8:56).

Why did the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis spark anger and mass protests around the world (14:50)? What does defunding or abolishing the police actually mean (18:15)? Professor Schneider answers these questions and describes the kinds of reforms that can effectively be enacted to allow the public to hold police accountable for misconduct (21:26).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Schneider shares the first five things she would do to reform policing in the United States (10:53).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World. Where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. Breonna Taylor. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. George Floyd. The list of names goes on and on and on. They are US citizens killed by the police. They are all Black. And those two facts are inextricably linked. Today we're talking about racial profiling and police violence. I'm Kay Summers and I'm joined by Cathy Schneider. Cathy is a professor in the School of International Service. She writes and teaches on urban politics, urban policing, criminal justice, and racial and ethnic discrimination in Europe, the US, and Latin America. She wrote a book entitled "Police Power and Race Riots: Urban Unrest in Paris and New York" in 2014. And she's written many articles on this topic, including "When Does Police Violence Spark Urban Unrest?". Cathy, thanks for joining Big World.

1:07      Cathy Schneider: Thank you.

1:09      KS: Cathy, at this point, I think it's almost a truism to say that policing in the US suffers from systemic racism. But I really want to dig in on the specifics of that a bit. How are ethnic, racial, and religious minorities policed differently than other groups in the US?

1:28      CS: The answer is complicated because it really has to do with the function of the police and how we define the function of the police. In my book I called it enforcing racial boundaries and the great anthropologist Didier Fassin has called it enforcing order. We have to think about what we want the police to do. Now the police answer to political authorities. And they were set up for particular purposes. So the police's notion of preserving order and protecting the public has a lot to do with how they define the public, who they believe is in need of protecting, and who are the dangerous groups they're protecting them from.

2:11      CS: And historically in the United States and in other countries, racial minorities, especially those where there has been a long history of exploitation, which could mean slavery, conquest, colonialism, subjugation, are defined as the dangerous classes. And the public is in unwritten words seen as the dominant majority. In the United States, whites. Hindus in India, et cetera. So what police do in the immediacy are conditioned by two other factors. Who are they answering to? So they're answering to a police chief who is answering to a mayor. When we see mayoral campaigns that demonize a particular group, that run on fear of crime, that use imagery that the Trump administration is using all the time about immigrants being rapists and murderers and Blacks being thugs and Muslims being terrorists, those groups the police understand are the groups that they are supposed to protect the public from.

3:29      KS: So Cathy, you're saying that the police as kind of a monolithic institution exists to protect the public. Which I think is a statement everyone would agree with. But that the public that they are taught to view as their public is really only one kind of person. That there is, in the US at least-

3:51      CS: Right.

3:51      KS: ... a white middle class person that represents the public, and everyone else is someone that they are protecting the public from?

3:58      CS: Right. And some police will make that explicit. There's this image that you're protecting the nation. You are doing your job which is protecting law abiding Americans. And the image is that white middle class people, wealthy people are law abiding Americans, and poor people, especially those belonging to stigmatized minorities, are dangerous people that you are protecting them from. And then there's also the incentive structure, which is you know that if you unfairly brutally treat somebody from a middle or upper class family neighborhood, those people will have both connections to power, to political power. They will call. They will sue. They will have good lawyers and civil lawyers, defense lawyers. So police worry about what those people would do. So the political incentives also are created for police to go after those who have less power, those who have a bad image on TV, those who people fear. So when I say the police enforce racial boundaries it's that the society itself has created those boundaries. And much of what the police are doing is responding to how society has divided people into categories and groups with unequal power and unequal resources.

5:36      KS: And this pivots really neatly into the next question, which gets more specifically into police violence. There's certainly nothing pleasant about profiling, but when it takes a turn into violence that becomes a different order of magnitude. So why are Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people more likely to be victims of police violence in the US?

5:59      CS: I just want to answer the question about the profiling first. There's a huge difference between profiling saying, "Well, we're looking for somebody who is sweating or looking nervous or carrying this kind of package," and racial profiling where you say, "Oh, he's suspicious because he's Black."

6:21      KS: Got it.

6:23      CS: And in fact they actually found with stop and frisk, and it's one of the reasons it was declared unconstitutional, which is far more of the whites stopped were found to have in their possession arms or drugs than Blacks stopped. And that is because they were using race as a shorthand. Now what happened with all of this legislation passed in the '80s and '90s and the drug wars, was that it increased dramatically the amount of interactions between poor minority, usually young men and police. So one of those things is these increased interactions. The reason police use violence against Blacks, and they also kill a disproportionate number of Native Americans... In fact, the disproportion is greatest for Native Americans, for Latinos, and depending on the city, Puerto Ricans in New York, Chicanos in Arizona. They have complete power.

7:34      CS: They are dealing with a population that has neither political or financial power most of the time. And the fact that police have all of this power and they are not held accountable, because district attorneys who work with the police every day know them personally, depend on them for the prosecution of their crimes, almost never indict police officers. Because the public tends to believe the police officer over the poor minority man or Black, Latino, Native American man or woman. Police know that they have complete impunity. That they have total power when they work in such neighborhoods.

8:28      KS: Cathy, I was just going to ask specifically about kind of contrasting the US with the rest of the world. Because we hear a lot about gun culture in the US and how we're inherently in a lot of ways more violent. But I'm curious when we look at the rest of the world, particularly other democracies, have other countries grappled with this degree of police violence, or is this something that is a particularly American failing?

8:56      CS: I would say that every racially divided society has grappled with it. And I did extensive work in France. So the French police have the same levels of impunity. Worse, because some cities and states in the United States either now or at a different periods, have really established accountability mechanisms. But look at the police treatment of Muslims in India right now, or the police treatment of Afro-Latinos in Brazil. At one time a third of all homicides in Brazil were committed by police. And so it's not unusual for a police force when it is given that task and not held accountable. Now to be clear, not all the police engage in violence. The big issue is that good police do not inform on violent, sadistic police. So even inside the police, police are intimidated by these officers. You could even see that in the George Floyd tape. They're afraid to either stop these officers, inform on these officers. So you have this blue wall of silence. You have DAs that don't convict. Prosecutors rarely prosecute these cases. Judges rarely convict police.

10:34      KS: Cathy Schneider, it's time to Take Five. This is when you, our guest, get to blue sky it and change the world as you'd like it to be, by single handedly instituting five policies or practices that could change the world for the better. Specifically, what are the first five things you would do to reform policing in the United States?

10:53      CS: Okay. The first is to set up a structure like the special prosecutor. In some states the attorney generals are quite reactionary and would not be any better than the DA, but some office that is independent of the police. That doesn't depend on the police, that doesn't have a close relationship with the police, to act as oversight. And that should compliment community civilian review boards, community organizations that have oversight. Second, I would reduce the militarization of police. I would confiscate weapons of war and I would encourage the police... What Nick Pastore used to call changing the structure of incentives of rewards. So when he was police chief he gave rewards for police that worked with the community to solve community problems rather than for arrests.

11:53      CS: Third, I would demand that the police chief punish police officers that engaged in excessive force against civilians. That is always problematic because of the police union. And I would... Police unions are major problems. And I think we should restrict what police unions can do. They should not be allowed to protect killers and prevent communities and cities and elected officials from holding killers responsible. I would change the mission of the police. Thinking about...There's many ways people have called it... North Ireland called it human rights policing. But a notion that safety is a public health issue. That many different kinds of agencies are involved. That different agencies may be more effective than the police on certain common aspects of crime.

13:00      CS: We should enforce, however, gun control. One of the things that, reasons that police resist a lot of these reforms, is that they are being given the task of, for instance drug wars or immigration wars, but if they go after them they face the possibility that these groups have weapons of war that can actually pierce their armor, and they're better armed than police. And so one of the reasons we have more killings than other countries is we also have the largest number of people with guns. The most guns of any other country. So police worry a lot about it. It's one area that police vote liberal. They always support gun control because they don't know what they're going to face. I don't know if that's five. So that's basically what I would do.

13:54      KS: Yeah. Anytime you approach this topic the list can get long really quickly. Thank you.

14:00      KS: Cathy, you mentioned George Floyd and I'm curious, his murder was obviously horrific, but there have been other horrific deaths over the years. Why do you think the killing of George Floyd sparked anger and mass protests around the world, when other police killings over the years have not sparked that same level of lasting outrage? Was it the method in which it was done, the knee on the neck that was so horrifying? Was it the amount of time that it took? Or was it just simply a tipping point that his death pushed the society over? Why do you think his death has been the rallying cry that it has been when others maybe were not?

14:50      CS: Right. So I think it's a misreading of the situation to think it's all about George Floyd. Minneapolis is about George Floyd. Minnesota, which has had, from Philando Castile, very brutal murders on video of innocent people. So Minneapolis had lots of reasons for this to be a tipping point, for this to be an explosion. What I think happened in other cities and other countries is that they responded to the uprising in Minneapolis, both the massive nonviolent protests as well as the violence, with a response to the same levels of violence in their own communities. So they weren't just thinking about George Floyd, although the video is particularly gruesome. They were thinking of their own cities and all of the young people or older people if you talk about Eric Garner, who had been brutally murdered by police for no reason. And that is true. For instance people were arguing, "Why is France responding to George Floyd?" And actually they weren't.

16:08      CS: They were responding to police violence that was occurring in France and massive protests. And so each area that led these mass protests, they were always larger in areas that had already a toxic relationship with police who had their own histories. What ignited it was not as much George Floyd, as a response to George Floyd, which is where this rage that was happening in Minneapolis was almost contagious. And these areas throughout the United States were suffering a multiplicity of things at the moment. It wasn't just ongoing police violence. It wasn't just all of the killings of people who had gone unpunished.

16:54      CS: It was also the racist statements made by the president and his elevation of white supremacists and white nationalists, and his encouragement of violence both militia and police violence. And it was the COVID pandemic, which had its largest effect on Black Latino communities. So if you're living in one of those communities, you've lost people you loved to COVID. You've lost your job. You haven't left your house in some places in three months, which is true of New York. So there's a whole bunch of pent up rage. And this is the spark that ignites.

17:51      KS: Now activists have been calling in these protests, especially in the US, they've been calling for police reform, including defunding and/or abolishing the police, which has of course become a very controversial concept. It's being used as a political weapon in the presidential campaign. What does defunding or abolishing the police actually mean? What does that look like in practice? What are people asking for?

18:15      CS: I have a problem with the slogans defunding and abolishing the police because what people hear is the normal definition. What do you usually think about with abolishing something is you eliminate it. What do you normally think defunding means? You normally think, "Take all their funds away." And so if you ask the majority of Americans whether they think that there should be less money spent on buying weapons of war for military and more money spent on social services, mental services, afterschool programs... By the way all things that reduce crime more than policing, then they will say, "Yes. I agree with each of these elements." And if you talk to people who say they want to abolish the police, there's a wide range of views about what that means. Some really mean eliminate policing. Some mean, "Put more emphasis and build up more social service provisions." So there's this way in which they want to change the culture of neighborhoods.

19:26      CS: And that is often considered by police reformers as reform. The model internationally is the North Irish Police. And the North Irish Police specifically did that. Was change the mission of the police. Change the composition by giving large retirement encouragement packages to old police, bringing in new police with a mission not to defend the state but the community in which there was a constant interaction with the community, and the community is involved in creating safety. You know many of the things that create safety for instance have nothing to do with policing. Lighting, they found that if you have lighting on dark streets, in an elevator, stairways, that you have less assaults. The way in which you provide safety for community is a integrated involvement of police with other groups, networks, and organizations within the community. That you make an attempt to create civic organizations and networks between people in the community. Police reformers have often engaged in similar policies and these were all attempts to change how the police interact with the public.

20:56      KS: Yeah, that was going to be my last question, because some of these reforms are kind of community based reforms that affect crime, that affect the community's relationship with the police. And they all are sound and they all are longer term strategies. But in the shorter term is there a model for what kinds of reforms are effective for holding police accountable for misconduct, until and unless we get to a place when there's that better relationship? How do you hold them accountable?

21:26      CS: I will go back to New York, which is I'm a New Yorker and my book was on New York and Paris. But the community groups I worked with in New York, particularly the Justice Committee, were really thoughtful and strategic and had both short and long term vision. And one of the things they came to believe at the end of the '90s, was that the way they were going about organizing all centered on finding justice for individuals after they been killed. For the families after they been killed. And it had done nothing to reduce police violence. And so they began to think about how do they hold police accountable? How do they prevent police from using lethal violence beforehand? And what they decided, police did violence is because they could. And because they knew their friend or compatriot in the district attorney's office weren't going to indict them.

22:30      CS: And they started thinking, "If we can create a system of accountability, it's not going to be just to punish police after the crime, but to inform police that they will be held accountable." So what they did in New York, the first thing they did and Eric Garner's mother was part of this group as well as Anthony Baez's mother. And what they did is they went to Cuomo's office and they put coffins leading up to his office. And they met with him and they urged him to create a special prosecutor for every case in New York state where police killed someone unarmed. The stress was on accountability. And the governor appointed the AG Schneiderman at the time as the special prosecutor. Now the first case that he confronted, a district attorney in Troy, New York, for the County of Rensselaer, issued a non-indictment of a police officer who had killed someone unarmed. And Schneiderman sued the DA for circumventing the executive order because only he could make those decisions.

23:49      CS: The second case that Schneiderman confronted was a case in New York where police killed Delrawn Small. Schneiderman prosecuted that police officer for murder, manslaughter, a series of possible crimes. Even though they lost ultimately. The jury split. They were divided and they ended up not convicting the police officer. But it also sent a message to the police. Which is, "You will be prosecuted and the DA is going to be sued if he tries to protect you." And after that, police stopped killing people in New York. There have been no police killings of unarmed people in New York City since 2016 when Delrawn Small was killed. There have been a few in Upstate, most recently in Rochester. But again, he's being prosecuted by the attorney general who is the special prosecutor. But what people in the community were frustrated by was that the police adapted. And the way they adapted was to stop killing unarmed people but started beating them near death.

25:12      CS: So as long as they survive, the DA was in charge not the special prosecutor. And the other thing they were really frustrated about is that they would find out after that the person who had killed their family member, their loved one, had a long string of complaints of excessive of force or beatings or killings. So they wanted two new things in particular. Opening up those records, removing this Article 50 that kept police records private, and two, extending the special prosecutor's oversight to those places where police beat people nearly to death, or hospitalized them, or injured them severely or in permanent ways. The other thing they added to that because of the involvement of Eric Garner's mother but also Anthony Baez's mother, was to make the chokehold illegal. It's supposedly against police procedure but it's never enforced. And they got all those passed this summer.

26:21      CS: They didn't want to rely on an executive order that a new governor could retract. They got the legislature to pass a law instituting the special prosecutor. Expanding the special prosecutor's role. Giving families access to the histories of the police officers who killed or beat or injured their loved one, and banning the chokehold. And New York has had enormous success. I was actually really surprised at the vehemence of the demonstrations. Also the violence in New York, because New York had been so much more successful than other cities.

27:03      KS: Definitely some positive lessons to take away from New York. Cathy Schneider, thank you for joining Big World to talk about systemic racism and policing in the US, and it's an important topic. We could talk about it for a really long time and not come to any solutions, but it's been great to speak with you. And I learned a lot. Thank you.

27:20      CS: Oh, great. Thank you so much.

27:21      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you'll leave us a good rating or review, it'll be like finding an extra bag of Halloween candy in your pantry on November 1st. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold" by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Cathy Schneider,
professor, SIS

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